Notes from a cold, hard place
By Don Mellor
This is a piece about ice climbing. I’ll tell you what I know, how it’s done, when it’s done. I’ll explain all the pointy tools and where people do it. I just won’t tell you why. After 30-plus years of banging my knuckles and freezing my toes, I still can’t answer that one.
If you’re driving up Route 73 toward Keene Valley and have a few extra minutes, pull over at Chapel Pond. It’s arguably the locus of ice climbing in the entire Adirondack Park. Step out onto the pond (oh, yeah, I forgot—it’s got to be winter). On any weekend and most weekdays, there will be colorful little dots stuck to the most ridiculous places on the ice-covered walls that tower over the pond.
Off to the left is Chouinard’s Gully, first climbed in 1969 by a young Californian who showed up at Chapel Pond brandishing a new line of ice axes. It was a visit that gave the Adirondacks a special place in the lore of ice climbing.
Yvon Chouinard had been to Europe and had climbed some of the big snow and ice faces in the Alps. When he got home, he put a blowtorch to his old tools, drooping the picks to stick better in the ice. It changed the sport forever: Instead of using the ice ax either to chop steps or to arrest a fall, the climber could put his full body weight on the tool. It meant that climbers, once limited to steep slopes, could now peg their way up vertical icicles, using two of these axes. The technology went worldwide the next year, and Chouinard went on to start a little clothing line, calling it Patagonia.
Chouinard can’t recall if it was he or his friends who made the first ascent of the gully, but the name stuck. Given all the fancy new gear, it’s a pretty easy route these days but still popular. Typically, a pair of climbers will arrive at dawn, hoping to beat the hordes. It’s no fun getting clunked on the helmet by ice bombs uncorked by a team a couple hundred feet above.
Here’s how it works: Each climber ties to an end of a 200-foot rope, and then the lead climber heads up. His “second” pays out rope from a belay device, a little gadget that will jam the rope fast if it’s tugged hard, as in a fall. As he ascends, the leader places ice screws—10-inch tubular anchors—and clips the rope to the screws. If the leader falls from, say, a spot 10 feet above his last screw, he’ll fly twice that distance, plus some rope stretch, before the belayer can stop him. On easy routes like Chouinard’s Gully, climbers routinely run out the rope 50 feet or more between screws. A fall would be disastrous, but with patience, good gear and sound technique, such a fall is unlikely.
Standing on Chapel Pond, looking up at the cliffs, you may notice off to the right a series of vertical drips. These create some of the hardest ice routes in the nation. They require relentless climbing up dangling icicles that threaten to detach as soon as you give them a solid whack with an ax. One of the best, called Artificial Gravity, ascends an icy veneer to an overhanging headwall 200 feet above the ground. Most years the water just drips on past, but when it’s breezy, the little droplets blow in against the cold rock and form a frozen layer a couple inches thick.
Here the game gets a little more dicey. Over on Chouinard’s, you can pretty much stomp your way up the route, with the metal crampons on your boots doing much of the work. On relatively low-angled terrain, you can get full-sole contact, but on steep stuff like Artificial Gravity, you’re standing on just one or two of the crampons’ front points. Your whole world depends on those little spikes of metal, kicked a half-inch or so into the ice.
Such a climb would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. With the stiff boot, high-tech crampons, the retooled hand axes and super sharp and shiny ice screws, climbers are pushing the limits of the possible.
The change in gear has opened up new routes. Take Avalanche Pass, a tight gap between Algonquin Peak and Mount Colden where a deep lake lies tucked between towering walls of rock. It’s a beautiful, wild place. Avalanche Pass has long been a skier’s destination, and over the years, a few climbers would venture up into the Trap Dike, a long vertical slot that leads to the slides and on to the summit of Colden. Back in the days of the long ax, floppy boots and old-style crampons, the climb was a real challenge. Now it’s regarded as fairly tame.
Climbers are instead turning their attention to the vertical yellow drips pasted to the walls on either side of the dike. Impossible, I used to say. (That’s a word absent from the vocabulary of my friends. When I described these climbs in my guidebook, Blue Lines, I suggested that they are reserved for people “with strong arms, short screws, and no children.”) And so it goes: Seventy years after the first winter ascent of the Trap Dike, Avalanche Pass ice climbing has, once again, put the Adirondacks on the national map.
The giant cliffs above Lake Willoughby in northern Vermont may have the biggest, thickest, most unrelentingly steep ice routes in the East. In New Hampshire, Mount Washington’s alpine gullies, such as Pinnacle and Odell’s, and Cannon Mountain’s Black Dike Route enjoy big reputations, nurtured by the media. But Avalanche Pass, with its howling winds and rock-hard yellow ice, is as challenging as any ice-climbing place in the lower 48 states (actually, the lower 49: Hawaii’s not much for ice.)
As with so many of our silly recreational pursuits, there’s a tension between the experience and the technology. Nobody wants a hole-in-one to be easy. But golfers just got to have that latest carbon-fiber driver with the balloon-sized titanium head. Likewise, ice climbers will spend a lot of the summer in outfitting stores fondling tools, checking with their own tender fingertips just how sharp those $60 screws are. (“Excuse me, does this store sell Band-Aids?”)
But just because you’ve laid down more than a thousand bucks for high-tech gear, don’t expect ice climbing to by easy. There’s nothing we can do to tame the ice or the weather. And that’s a good thing: Part of the allure is the very fact that there are things bigger than we are, forces that we can’t control.